Party aims to regain power Democrats campaign for executive's seat, council majority

'A critical election'

Two sides look ahead to controlling revision of districts lines in '00

July 26, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Guy Guzzone is sweating. It's 8 o'clock on a sticky summer night, and after three nonstop hours of knocking on doors of registered voters, he's come to the 89th house, the second-to-last for the night, on some cul-de-sac in Owen Brown that at this point looks no different from so many others he's traversed in the past several months.

No one's home, and the lanky 34-year-old is ready to make his way to house number 90. But just then, a Toyota Camry pulls up. Out steps Peter Doob, 50-year-old Democrat, father of three and Columbia resident for 18 years.

Guzzone introduces himself with a smile, and Doob seems to nod in recognition. The candidate's eyes light up.

"You recognize my name?"

"I recognize your name," Doob says assuredly. "A Democrat running for County Council. About time."

About time indeed, Democrats say, for the party to win more races in Howard County. After 12 years of losing seats on the County Council, after eight years of being shut out of the county executive's office, Democrats are making a bid to reclaim control of county government this year.

The party's candidates are working hard, and with a sense of urgency: If the Democrats fail to win the county executive's office or a majority on the council, Republicans will control the drawing of new council district lines in 2000.

That would hand the GOP an opportunity to entrench themselves in the county's seats of power for more than a decade.

"It's a critical election for Democrats, no doubt about it," said Lin Eagan, a former president of the Columbia Democratic Club who was active in county politics in the 1970s, when Democrats held sway over county government. Then, being the Democratic nominee often meant victory in November.

Now, Democrats are struggling to influence the government machine they once ran.

This year presents a golden opportunity, with County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, leaving office, three Republicans leaving the council and the only two Democratic council members running for re-election.

Primaries add to GOP work

Moreover, Republicans face primaries in the executive's race and the three races for open seats, while Democrats can generally direct their money and efforts toward the November election.

The Democrats have largely pinned their hopes on two candidates: James Robey, the former police chief running for executive, and Guzzone, former Maryland director of the Sierra Club, who is running for the open council seat considered most winnable by Democrats.

If both men win -- a big if -- and the incumbent Democrats win -- as many expect -- the party would again control county government.

To many in the Democratic Party, Robey is the ideal candidate. He is a longtime public servant with good name recognition and obvious credentials on crime. He has a raft of volunteers from the public employee ranks, and his frequent meetings with community groups when he was police chief prepared him well for grass-roots campaigning.

He also has the help of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who appeared with him two consecutive days this month.

"I'll tell ya, he's going to win the Democratic nomination. You heard it here first," Glendening joked to a crowd of about 250 at a recent western Howard fund-raiser for Robey, who has no primary opponent. "Because we're going to work together as one team, because we know the stakes, he's going to win in November as well."

What's at stake?

But some political observers are asking what, exactly, is at stake. Some of the Republicans running for office are either former Democrats or so moderate they could easily be mistaken for Democrats, and Robey himself is considered a conservative Democrat by members of both parties.

Meanwhile, the county's dominant issue -- growth -- has blurred party lines to the extent that, in many races, it is difficult to tell which candidate, Democrat or Republican, would do more to stem the tide of development in the next four years.

Still, many Democrats charge that a Republican win in November would signal trouble for managed growth and other key issues -- education, social services and affordable housing -- which Democrats contend have received short shrift from Republicans. Democrats say that, although party lines might be blurred, it would be dangerous to allow the GOP to set the agenda for more than a decade to come.

"Even if my opponents happen to be good on the education issue or any other issue, the bottom line is they are going to cast a vote for their party on redistricting," Guzzone said. "There might be one Republican or two Republicans who are good on this issue or on that issue, [but] if education is what we care about in the long term, then I'm putting my confidence in a Democratic majority delivering on that issue."

GOP defends its policies

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